*This is a repost from my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – A Sacred Duty
At a Drops Like Stars event in Tempe, AZ evangelical speaker Rob Bell asked how many people in the crowd were wearing crosses. A little over half the crowd raised their hands. Bell wondered aloud why it is that so many people wear ancient symbols of torture, pain and death such as the cross. It was a fair enough question.
Bell offered the explanation that it has to do with the art of solidarity; that God sent Jesus into the world to scream alongside of us. He says in book form, “This is why for thousands of years Christians have found the cross to be so central to life. It speaks to us of God’s suffering, God’s pain, God’s broken heart. It’s God making the first move and then waiting for our response.” For Bell and, as he argues, many Christians the cross is a symbol of redemption through suffering. Jesus suffering with us, redeeming that suffering and standing in solidarity with all of humanity that screams out in this present darkness.
So the cross serves as a symbol of suffering and pain, but also one of victory and redemption.
Then there are crosses in Texas.
In Texas, crosses are, well, odd and fascinating pieces of art.
Since moving to Texas some ten months ago I’ve seen more crosses than I’ve seen anywhere else in the entire world (albeit I’ve not yet been to the Lithuanian hill of crosses). In every boutique, on living room walls and diamond studded on tee shirts, hats and women’s hand bags there are crosses of varying sizes and carrying assorted messages.
Britannica encyclopedia states that religious iconography, or symbolism, serves religious communities with “basic and often complex artistic forms…to convey religious concepts and…[to represent] religious ideas and events.” As a religious symbol, the cross has remained a strong sign of Christianity throughout the ages conveying the Christian belief in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and testifying to their concept of redemption for humanity through that suffering. The art of the cross is a wide and diverse stream and the cross has been transformed and translated throughout the ages to speak in new ways to new people for various contexts. I’ve experienced this first hand. While traveling around the world my wife and I amassed a diverse array of crosses with a sundry of forms, crafted from a myriad of media and reflecting each culture’s unique take on Jesus and the cross.
In Texas the cross has taken on a whole new form reflecting both Texas’ strong belief in its “Christian heritage” and its rough-and-tumble independence. Thus, in Texan shops and homes you’ll find crosses made out of leather belts replete with belt buckles at the apex, a cross with the state of Texas smack dab in the middle with words like “reign of God,” “LORD God Sabaoth” and other militaristic/kingdom oriented words from Scripture etched into the frame, a cross made from cowboy rope, a cross studded with turquoise or diamonds or the ubiquitous barbed wire and star cross with barbed wire wrapped around a cross of rough wood and christened with a texas star in the middle and a horse shoe to boot
Texas is Texas that’s for sure.
When you meet people and ask where they are from native Texans respond with pride telling you that they are from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Odessa, Lubbock or Midland. For those not from Texas the standard line is, “I’m not from Texas, but I got here as fast I could.” Texans support their respective colleges and universities with unabashed loyalty and a hint of hubris. They believe in the Texas ideal and flirt with secession. The Lone Star Republic still means something to Texans and so the large tri-color flag flies right next to the American flag with patriotic zeal. In Texas, BBQ and Tex-Mex are sacramentally akin to the bread and wine of Christian communion and on Friday the football stadium is church.
Texans garner these attitudes and convictions from a history of rugged independence and pride of roots formed on ranches and fields bringing forth cotton, cattle and oil.
Unsurprisingly, such perspectives find themselves reflected in Texas cross art.
If, in general, the cross is a symbol of suffering and an icon of redemption and victory through pain and death then in Texas the cross serves as a symbol of freedom, ingenuity, rough-and-tumble independence and strength.
When religious scholars and leaders suppose the cross to be a symbol of suffering and by association, a sign of humility, their hypothesis does not stick when reviewing the crosses of Texas.
Every cross in Texas is imposing or impressive or both. In that way they reveal something telling about Texan Christianity, and in some ways, Texan religion in general.
It’s loud, it’s proud and it is undeniably Texan.
This forces us to ask, “what hath the cross of Texas to do with the cross of Golgotha?”
Certainly, Texas crosses acknowledge the suffering, but associate it with their own hard fought road to freedom and glory (notice the rough hewn wood, the dark colors and the barbed wire). More than any other country or cultural context I’ve witnessed, they add a strong dash of pride to their cross. In some way, this pride might even come to overshadow the humble carpenter’s son from Jesus who Christians claim died on a cross almost 2,000 years ago.
In another way, it reminds us that the cross of Texas is less a symbol of a religion and more an icon of a culture – a distinctively Texan culture where every cowboy, rancher, service man or woman, football player, student, oil refiner or engineer is meant to be hard working, independent and faithful to God, family and Texas.
Viewed in such a light it makes perfect sense for every cross to bear a belt buckle, some bling, a little barbed wire or a boot. For more than speaking to God’s suffering and Jesus’ redemption of the world through his own pain and death, the cross in Texas conveys a culture’s pride in fortunes won through blood, sweat and tears and reveals a cultural ideal of faith in God and country.
Therefore, if you visit Texas you will find the cross proudly displayed in homes, in shops, in restaurants, on trucks and in fashion. After all, if Texans brazenly fly their flag they expectedly brandish their cross as well as a sign of what it truly means to be Texan.